Friday, August 19, 2011

the road less taken

I have mentioned before that Pátzcuaro was on my short list of places to live in Mexico.  In fact, four years ago, I came very close to buying a house in the hills above the town.

Being inclined to daydream, I spent more than a few hours at work imagining what it would be like to take a drive around the full perimeter of the lake.

On Thursday, my imagining became a reality.  I set aside about six hours to see as much of the lake as I could.  Starting with one rule: there would be no rules.  Whatever popped into my head, I would do.

The villages around the lake reflect as much diversity as the lake itself.  On its face, the lake appears rather uniform.  It is not.  It is shallow on its south side and far deeper on the north.

The southern shore has vast wetlands that were once the bed of the lake.  The northern shore is bordered by mountains that almost rise from the lake.  And it seldom seems blue.  At its best, it wears Georgia Confederate gray.

I have no idea if the villages are a result of geographical determinism.  It may be a factor.  Along with Don Vasco’s specialization regime.  The varying roots of the tribes around the lake.  Or the simple fact that my village is not going to look like my neighbor’s.

I don’t have the answer.  I am not an anthropologist.  But I am a traveler.

And travel I did.  I started with the western end of the lake -- places I had visited twice last week.  The hilltop village of Tzentezencuaro and its dilapidated church.  And even more dilapidated bust of Emiliano Zapata.

The former island of Jaracuaro with its nimble-fingered residents who weave hats and other reed products.  Years ago, a causeway was built to what was then an island. 

The causeway is rumored to have covered an underwater spring.  Without the water feed, the island became a peninsula.  But the bridge on the causeway is a great place to watch wading birds, cows, and the occasional net fisherman.

And Tocuaro with its slightly-disguised wood carving shops – especially, masks.

The highway skirts most of the villages.  But it passes right through the market town of Erongaricuaro.  Because I had spent two days there last week, I decided to drive through to new villages.

I got off the highway in Napizaro and Puacuaro to see the only major buildings in the villages -- their churches.  The church in Napizaro was the least satisfying.  But its origin is interesting.

It was built in 1979 with donations from the northern remittances of the village’s men.  And someone tried to give it a modern Spanish look.  But it is as uninteresting as an evangelical church in Pocatello.

However, I noticed an odd accessory in the church yard.  A tall pole with a small cross bar and a bit of aged vegetation topping it.  I saw the same setup in front of the church at San Jeronimo Purenchecuaro. 

I do not even want to hazard a guess on this one.  Do any of you have any idea of the significance?  It is obviously celebratory, but of what, I have no idea.

At San Andres Tzirondaro, I stopped at a junction to see if there was a way to retrace my steps.  I had seen a series of small fields, all divided by stone walls.  In an odd way it reminded of the hedgerows in Oxfordshire.  And I wanted a photograph.

But the road was built to hurry people along on their business – not to cater to photographers.  And stopping in the lane of travel was not an option.  For people who consider time not to be a life factor, Mexican drivers certainly like to ride the bumpers of scenery-loving tourists.

Rather than retrace my steps, I decided to gain elevation.  At the junction, a sign pointed to Santiago Azajo.  My road atlas showed no road and my GPS protested that I was driving through fields.  It was almost like the start of a Twilight Zone episode.

But there the highway was.  A beautiful, newly-constructed road.  With shoulders.  Even though I only wanted to get a bit above the lake, I was entranced with the road.

At this point, I should point out that my danger alarm started registering -- at a low pitch.  Back road.  Almost no traffic.  Unusual display of expensive pavement.

About another 1000 feet above the lake, I topped a ridge to see something I experienced several times in Greece -- a rather seedy village with a magnificent view.  I laughed at myself for being so concerned.

The village church is a surprisingly large building with an immense plaza in front of it.  Each of the multiple religious figures in the church wore real clothes.  I have become accustomed to that. 

What I found interesting was that each figure also wore multiple pieces of currency.  The only other place I had seen that was at the Santa Muerte chapel.  It was a bit unnerving.

While looking for some good photograph opportunities, I ended up in a dead end road with some fields.  I started snapping away at the bucolic scene.  A plow drawn by horses.  Beautiful mountains.  Campesinos working in the field.  I felt like Monet on holiday.

Then one of the field workers looked at me, stood up, and in perfect English said: “Where are you from?” 

For a moment, I thought I was hearing and speaking Spanish.

We talked briefly about his trips north.  Where I was from.  What I was doing in the village?  Was I lost?

And then the rather chilling note: “Maybe you should leave now.”

I do not know exactly what he meant, but I had a good idea.  So, I was on my way back down the mountain.

The road quickly took me past Santa Fe de Laguna, Quiroga, and Tzintzuntzan -- places we have visited recently on these pages.

And my impression?  I am still infatuated with this lake.  Whether it is the sense of peace in the water or the birds or the sheer enjoyment of the countryside, I am hooked. 


tancho said...

There are several villages around the area that are known for "bad people" I hope someone spent a little time with you advising you, so that we don't wonder what happened to our Amigo Steve.......
I envy your adventurous streak, but question your bold desire for exploration in this part of the country at this time.

Babsofsanmiguel said...

Forty years ago one of the largest contracts I was able to procure for the company I worked for at the time was in the State of Michoacan for "helicopter" services. It was to spray paraquat on the marijuana fields.  It didn't work.  You BETTER quit traveling those back roads my friend.  Especially taking photos.  Good grief!

Jackie Martinez said...

Hi Steve
I'm really enjoying your posts from Patzcuaro.  The pictures are beautiful.
My husband and I had a similar experience of driving down a lovely but islolated country road with a river on one side and mountains and trees on the other side.    We had been driving for about 10 minutes when we both got "that feeling" we don't belong here. We turned around and went back to the highway.  We were in Oregon.  Always best to trust your instincts.

Jackie Martinez

jennifer rose said...

You may have been on holiday, but the people whom you’ve
made subjects of your photos and commentary aren’t. They’re just leading regular
lives, trying to get by. The quaint natives aren’t animals at the zoo on display
for your viewing pleasure and entertainment.


Dead end road with some fields, huh? Did you consider that
you just may have been trespassing on private property? What did you expect the
field worker to say “Sit a while, make yourself comfortable while you watch me
work, and then we’ll crack open a coupla brewskis before I invite you to marry
my sister”? Never mind that you’ve gone and called his village seedy. It isn’t
all about picturesque, bucolic scenarios. It’s about encroaching upon other
people’s lives, putting them and their environment under a microscope.


Your status as an American with a blog and a camera doesn’t
entitle you to anything. Put the damn camera down now. Quit treating everything
that you encounter as material for your blog. You might actually see something
and gain some insight by doing so.


Steve, you’re a nice guy, and the odds are that you’re
completely unaware of what you’re doing. More than once you’ve used the word “audition”
with reference to your travels in Mexico. Get over it.



Nita said...

Your travelogue was interesting. Your title - one of two of my favorite poems.

Felipe Zapata said...

Excellent lake shot at the top. The rock wall is a great touch.

Steve Cotton said...

I have had my briefing.

Steve Cotton said...

I am sticking to the roads more traveled.

Steve Cotton said...

But, Jennifer, I am not on holiday.  I am living my life.

There is probably no way for either of us to avoid our training.  We look at the human condition, analyze it, and share our thoughts. 

I suspect both of us will continue doing that.

Steve Cotton said...

I morphed the title a bit.  Don't want Robert Frost showing up in my dreams.

Steve Cotton said...

My old stomping grounds in southern Oregon has become an area where hikers and hunters have to be very careful where they tread.  I had that same feeling on this trip.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks.  Now and then they just show up.  But I think I have a new lake with which to share my affections.

Steve Cotton said...

You are correct, Jackie. Southern Oregon can hold as many surprises as the hills around Patzcuaro. I grew up on some of those roads.

Plutarcoeiris said...

Brief us, do.

Steve Cotton said...

I am sticking to the well-traveled roads.

Felipe Zapata said...

Lake Zirahuen, I imagine. Also quite nice.

Plutarcoeiris said...

We've had that uneasy feeling, and we've been curtly encouraged to move along on fire roads in Appalachia.  Moonshiners and "cultivators" are typically secretive and suspicious of outsiders. Thanks Rose, for cautioning our Steve for his own safety.  The photo of the farmer with his team and plough is exceptional. Must one be nationalized to reveal such an image?

Laurie Matherne said...

Steve, I know from missionaries near Guadalajara that is MARIJUANA HARVESTING season now in your part of the world. Wrong place, wrong time, my friend. Lucky for you the man was forgiving of your naivete. That part of the world is renowned for violence against eavesdroppers. Stay away. 

Don Cuevas said...

If you want stone walls, you should visit out our way. However, it's not on the lake, and in fact, you can't see the lake from where we are.

Saludos, Don Cuevas

Kim G said...

It's not just poor Mexican campesinos who end up in tourist photos.  I work in a Boston high-rise just behind Faneuil Hall, and if I had a nickel for every tourist's photo I've been in, I'd be a rich man.

Am I worked up about it? No.

For me, Faneuil Hall is just another place to get coffee. For all the tourists, it's exotic and exciting.  It's all a matter of perspective. I'm thankful they come here and spend money and help support the many things that make Boston an interesting place.

I don't think Steve should be putting himself in danger, but do cut him some slack. He's quite respectful of people.


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where having first worked in San Francisco's Embarcadero Center prepared us well for dodging tourists in Boston.

Steve Cotton said...

He was actually quite helpful. I truncated our conversation. We probably talked for about five minutes. But, you are correct, I am glad he was there to give some good advice.

Steve Cotton said...

On my next trip here, I hope to do that.

Steve Cotton said...

Right you are.

Steve Cotton said...

I have never been a very cautious person. But I have been a fortunate person. To keep the latter operating, I suppose I could afford to be a bit more cautious in my old age.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks, Kim.  The farmer with his horses was not meant to be disrespectful of him.  I was fascinated to see a method of cultivation that I knew as a youngster.  The term "quaint" never entered my libertarian mind.  If anything, it struck me as "utilitarian."  A side of Mexico I had not yet experienced.  And which some of my readers may have never seen.

As for the danger element, I plead guilty.  I need to be a little bit more careful what I am photographing and where.

Laurie Matherne said...

I know some stories that are very different than your experiences in Boston, Kim. Very different. One young man who defied the marijuanan lords in that  area was returned finger by finger, toe by toe, etc. to his parents. Steve has had so many mishaps already, from vandals with his trucks, pickpockets, ankle  busted, etc. He has had more mishaps than I in four years in Central America. Many more. A word of caution is in order for Steve. 

Steve Cotton said...

And I would emphasize it is my carelessness that led to several of those mishaps.

Kim G said...

My point was not to condone going far off the beaten track and exposing himself to danger. In fact, I have warned several times in comments of the inadvisability of doing so. 

Rather, my comment was directed toward Jennifer Rose (to whom I was replying, but for some reason the comment ended up at the bottom anyway.)  I think she was a bit harsh on him on the general rudeness of snapping photos of the locals. As a much-snapped local, I was simply adding another point of view.

But yeah.  Steve!!! Keep yourself in once piece so we can keep reading your blog!  OK?


Kim G
Boston, MA
Where we like living dangerously, but not foolhardily.

Steve Cotton said...

Will do.